Monday, June 22, 2009

July 4, 1776 - 2009

Thoughts on Independence Day, 2009

When I was a little girl, my mama bought a book for me entitled "Family Book of Best Loved Poems." It was filled with the most wonderful poetry and I read it from cover to cover several times. There was a section in the book called "American Poetry" that I found myself turning to it several times during the year, especially around the fourth of July. At that time in my young life, I didn't have the vocabulary or the reasoning power to understand the tightness in my chest or the tear in my eye, but I felt it was something deep and important. It was instilled in me by both of my parents, but especially my dad who had served in the Navy during WWII and had an abiding love for this country. I remember watching him say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the "Star Spangled Banner." I would look at him out of the corner of my eye and see his eyes glistening with restrained tears. There was always a look of fierce pride, and as a kid, and because I did love my daddy, I would puff my chest as big as possible and lift my head a little higher and try my best to let my dad know that I could feel that emotion, too, even if I didn't yet understand it.

As I've grown and matured, or at least gained a little wisdom, I recognize that emotional display as a sign of intense patriotism. It saddens me that we don't see it as often or as openly as we once did. It seems that people aren't educated anymore in the protocol of saying the Pledge or singing our national anthem. I'm not even sure they know the words. I could get terribly cynical about it all, but today, I've decided not to indulge in that waste of time. Instead, I'm going to focus on the greatness of our country and on the thousands of people who do, indeed, still know that protocol, understand the feeling of patriotism and would nod and agree with that fierce pride on my dad's face; those patriots who would understand the tear in his eye, the lump in his throat and would share that emotion with him - and with me, as the child and as the woman grown.

So, in honor of July 4, 2009, I have printed here a very special poem from the book my mama gave me. It is written by that most famous of writers, Unknown, aka Anonymous. I wish I knew who did write it. I'd love to track them down - or their descendants - and tell them how much this poem has meant to me for most of my life. I long ago memorized the final stanza and, believe it or not, I think of it more often than I can say. It just pops into my head when I'm watching the news or when I hear certain music, there it is, repeating quietly in the background of my mind. I hope you enjoy it, too. More than that, I hope it remains true long after blogs or Twitter or the internet make it possible to communicate it. I hope, for all of us, it never dies.

Happy, safe July 4th, friends. Enjoy!

Independence Bell - July 4, 1776

There was a tumult in the city
In the quaint old Quaker town,
And the streets were rife with people
Pacing restless up and down-
People gathering at corners,
Where they whispered each to each,
And the sweat stood on their temples
With the earnestness of speech.

As the bleak Atlantic currents
Lash the wild Newfoundland shore,
So they beat against the State House,
So they surged against the door,
And the mingling of their voices
Made the harmony profound,
Till the quiet street of Chestnut
Was all turbulent with sound.

"Will they do it?" "Dare they do it?"
"Who is speaking?" What's the news?"
"What of Adams?" "What of Sherman?"
"Oh, God grant they won't refuse!"
"Make some way there!" "Let me nearer!"
"I am stifling!" "Stifle then!
When a nation's life's at hazard,
We've no time to think of men!"

So they surged against the State House,
While all solemnly inside,
Sat the Continental Congress,
Truth and reason for their guide,
O'er a simple scroll debating,
Which, though simple it might be,
Yet should shake the cliffs of England
With the thunders of the free.

Far aloft in that high steeple
Sat the bellman, old and gray,
He was weary of the tyrant
And his iron-sceptered sway,
So he sat, with one hand ready
On the clapper of the bell,
When his eye could catch the signal,
The long-expected news to tell.

See! See! The dense crowd quivers
Through all its lengthy line,
As the boy beside the portal
Hastens forth to give the sign!
With his little bands uplifted,
Breezes dallying with his hair,
Hark! with deep, clear intonation,
Breaks his young voice on the air.

Hushed the people's swelling murmur,
Whilst the boy cries joyously;
"Ring!" he shouts, "Ring! Grandpapa,
Ring! oh, ring for Liberty!"
Quickly, at the given signal
The old bellman lifts his hand,
Forth he sends the good news, making
Iron music through the land.

How they shouted! What rejoicing!
How the old bell shook the air,
Till the clang of freedom ruffled
The calmly gliding Delaware!
How the bonfires and the torches
Lighted up the night's repose,
And from the flames, like fabled Phoenix,
Our glorious liberty arose!

That old State House bell is silent,
Hushed is now its clamorous tongue;
But the spirit it awakened
Still is living-ever young;
And when we greet the smiling sunlight
On the fourth of each July,
We will ne'er forget the bellman
Who, betwixt the earth and sky,
Rung out, loudly, "Independence!"
Which, please God, shall never die!

- Unknown author


  1. Penny, thanks for the reminder and for sharing the poem. You write very well. I am impressed that you are venturing into this realm. Patricia

  2. This poem was first published on July 4th 1857 in Harper's Weekly. The Irish-American poet, story writer and playwright Fitz-James O'Brien seems to be listed in Harper's records as the author of this poem. (Source: Francis Wolle,_Fitz-James O'Brien, a Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties_, 1944).


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